State funds urged for high-speed computer links

Legislators to decide by next month whether to advance $5 million

August 04, 1999|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Members of Maryland's business, academic and local government communities urged state legislators yesterday to release funds for a high-speed data network that they said would bring significantly faster Internet connections to schools, libraries, hospitals, government offices and other institutions.

The project, called the Net.Work.Maryland plan, is projected to cost $50 million over five years. The state legislature has pledged $1 million for the network, but held back another $5 million in early funding until it receives the report of a task force assigned to flesh out plans for the project.

Task force head Major F. Riddick Jr., chief of staff to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said he expected legislators to decide between now and early next month on whether to move forward with the project.

The House of Delegates Appropriations Committee received the task force's report yesterday. Del. Howard P. Rawlings, head of the committee, said the matter would be sent to subcommittee staffs for review.

"This is a substantial commitment," the Baltimore Democrat said. "We will not make a decision until we have reviewed the document and obtained some input from our staff."

The plan's proponents envision building the network in two stages. In the first, the state would work with phone companies and other communications providers to put together an interim network that would be constructed in about one year.

In the second, costlier stage, the state would oversee construction of a more elaborate network designed to meet long-term communications needs. In a major step toward this goal, the Maryland Board of Public Works has already approved a contract that calls for Level 3 Communications Inc. of Louisville, Colo., to lay fiber-optic lines along 330 miles of highway. Construction of the Level 3 network began in June.

The contract is expected to provide a key chunk of the proposed long-term network and bring the state between $49.8 million and $222.8 million in revenue over the next 40 years. The revenue would come from resale of communications services carried along the fiber lines.

Advocates of Net.Work.Maryland said it would link the state's constellation of nationally recognized research centers to a single network and improve access statewide to videoconferencing, long-distance education programs and telemedicine, as well as high-speed connections to the World Wide Web. They said networks have become overburdened by increased demand.

"All those new applications need a high-speed [network] to run on. We need to go up to the next notch to serve citizens in the coming century," said Patricia E. Wallace, head of the information-access division of Enoch Pratt Free Library.

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